In the foreground, an aerial view of Bethany Reservoir, located on the California Aqueduct and downstream from the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant. Paul Hames / DWR

DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Delta Conveyance Project update: Environmental review, community benefits

At the April meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Councilmembers received an update on the Delta Conveyance Project, including the status of the environmental review process and the results of the recent environmental justice survey.

First, Graham Bradner, Interim Executive Director of the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority, provided an update on the Authority.  Then Carrie Buckman, Environmental Manager for the Department of Water Resources, provided an update on the Delta Conveyance Project environmental review process, community benefits program, and environmental justice survey results.

Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority update

Graham Bradner began by introducing himself and giving an overview of his background and experience.  He has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in hydrogeology from Clemson University.  He has had 20 years of engineering experience, the last 16 years with the local office of GEI Consultants.  Mr. Bradner is a California registered geologist and certified engineering geologist and hydrogeologist specializing in the evaluation, design, and construction of water supply and flood risk infrastructure in Northern California.  He was also the Sacramento GEI office’s engineering division manager and has served on GEI’s board of directors since February of 2019.

About two and a half years ago, Mr. Bradner was dedicated full time to the Delta Conveyance Project as the levee and forebay design lead and a deputy for the engineering design manager. He led several program-wide evaluations and studies and was also a regular presenter at the stakeholder engagement committee.

It’s important to note here that I’ll continue to serve as a core member of the engineering team leading the same efforts going forward, even as I take on additional responsibilities as the Interim Executive Director,” he said.

Mr. Bradner said he brings continuity in terms of vision and approach for the DCA because of his past involvement in the program.  He then gave his vision of the guiding principles and the approach forward:

    • Continue to operate in a collaborative manner that brings multiple voices and perspectives;
    • Continue to communicate the work that we’re doing transparently and be sure to make good use of constructive feedback that received;
    • Ensure that we’re delivering top quality work consistent with a world-class project and organization; and
    • Continue to be creative and innovative in our thinking about resolving challenges and opportunities.

While collaboration and communication is certainly a part of engaging the community, I wanted to call out communities specifically on this slide to ensure that we’re all clear about our commitment to developing a project that reflects community input,” he said.

He presented a conceptual schedule for the DCA’s primary activities. Over the past couple of years, the DCA has developed and provided key concept engineering deliverables for the central and eastern corridor and the Bethany Reservoir alternative so that DWR could perform the environmental assessment.  The DCA has launched a geotechnical program and convened a stakeholder engagement committee to provide a forum for those who live and work in the Delta to provide input on engineering and construction aspects of the project.

Having delivered the draft conceptual designs to DWR, the DCA is now transitioning to the next part of the planning phase for the DCA.  They will focus on maintaining the core engineering staff to available to answer questions from the environmental team and make any requested modifications to the documents; process the incoming geotechnical data to confirm the conceptual design assumptions; continue to engage with the community through the stakeholder engagement committee; and provide support to DWR for the preparation of permits.

In the Fiscal Year 2022-23, they will continue that and ramp services back up to prepare for public hearings and respond to public comments as the DWR team completes their analysis and releases a draft document to the public for comment. 

A rough estimate at this point based on the CEQA/NEPA processes would have the DCA potentially beginning some of the early engineering work on the preferred alternative during the Fiscal Year 23-24, which would first be contingent on all the necessary permits and approvals being obtained,” Mr. Bradner said.

Delta Conveyance Project environmental review update and summary of environmental justice survey

Next, Carrie Buckman, Environmental Manager for the Department of Water Resources, updated the Council on the environmental review process, the community benefits program development, and the environmental justice survey results.

Environmental review process

Currently, they are developing the initial documents for the environmental impact report or EIR.  The current schedule is a draft document being released early to mid-2022, with the final documents following in late 2023.  The Army Corps of Engineers is in a parallel process to develop the environmental impact statement or EIS. 

Ms. Buckman noted that the schedule for the water rights proceedings and the Delta Plan consistency has not been worked out in detail yet; the schedule is just showing general time blocks.  She said they are planning to look at Delta Plan consistency once the water rights process is complete.

Currently, they are looking at technical studies and impact analysis as part of the development of the CEQA document.  They are considering the alternative information received from the DCA and doing studies to identify the potential for environmental effects. She said that all of this is a work in progress, and there are not many interesting conclusions to talk about at this point.

The Army Corps of Engineers is the NEPA lead for the project, and they are on a parallel path, working to develop an environmental impact statement.

An initial study and mitigated negative declaration for the fieldwork for the soil investigations was released last year.  The investigations were started in 2020, ceased during the wet season, and restarted in March.  She noted that they received many questions from Delta residents and stakeholders about where those investigations were occurring, so they started posting a two-week look-ahead map on their website. 

It’s a general look at where we are going in two weeks, and we update it every week,” said Ms. Buckman.  “It’s not always exact; we can’t pinpoint a date, and the sites tend to move a little bit based on scheduling and weather conditions and landowner preferences. But it gives a pretty good idea about where we’re going in the next two weeks.”

Community benefits

Ms. Buckman said they are working on developing a framework for the community benefits program.  They have three public workshops and one trial workshop scheduled in April and May.

The Department is creating the community benefits program to acknowledge that the direct project benefits related to the State Water project supply reliability are not located inside the Delta. If the project is approved, it could have potential adverse effects that Delta communities would have to endure through construction that isn’t covered under traditional CEQA environmental mitigation.

As part of the CEQA process, they will be identifying environmental impacts and mitigating for those, but it is a pretty prescriptive process,” said Ms. Buckman.  “There are other types of effects that may not be captured, and we want the community benefits program to help address those issues.”

The community benefits program is a defined set of commitments made by project proponents and created in coordination with the local community to create lasting tangible and potentially significant economic and social benefits to the residents, businesses, and organizations facing project impacts, explained Ms. Buckman.  These commitments are on top of the mitigation requirements of the CEQA process.

It’s very important to us to develop this in collaboration with the community, and so we’re still in development, but this kind of program could Include funding efforts that are grassroots from the community,” she said.  “So we are looking for a grassroots framework for fund development and management that empowers the local community. And it could also include implementation commitments, which would be commitments as part of the project implementation that could benefit the local community, such as job training or hiring targets.”

The framework development process began with interviews conducted in February and early March.  That information has been summarized and posted on the Delta Conveyance webpage, which has a community benefits page with that information.  They are conducting three public workshops to collect additional feedback; the first was in April, and the remaining two will be held in May.  There will also be an additional workshop for tribal members only.

All of this is working towards trying to put together a framework for what a community benefits program would look like, which we would include as an appendix to the draft EIR, which we’re expecting in mid-2022,” said Ms. Buckman.

Environmental Justice Survey

An environmental justice survey was conducted in late 2020; the detailed results will be presented at the upcoming stakeholder engagement committee on April 28 and released in a survey report in May.

A lot of data was collected; Ms. Buckman said that this presentation is a summary of some of the key findings due to time constraints.  The goal of the survey was to gather direct input from disadvantaged communities in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta region that may be disproportionately affected by the proposed Delta conveyance project.

We wanted to focus on communities that are historically burdened and underrepresented people of color and low-income communities of interest, including tribal members,” said Ms. Buckman.  “We did not limit participation. We welcomed anyone to participate. But we did focus our outreach on those communities. And we collected some data as part of the survey to help identify participants that did meet those criteria.”

There were 2117 total participants in the survey; of those, 540 of them were Disadvantaged Community (or DAC) members; these participants were identified as non-white, a household income is less than $60,000 (which is 80% of California’s median household income), or by zip code and household income less than $75,000.

Of the 540 people who were in disadvantaged communities, they were able to identify 166 participants who were from severely disadvantaged communities (or SDACs),  Those participants were identified as those with household incomes of less than $45,000 (which is 60% of California’s median household income) or by zip code, and household income is less than $60,000.

The survey was available in both Chinese and Spanish; 311 people completed the survey in Chinese, and 12 people completed the Spanish survey. 

One of the survey’s objectives was to try to reach people who may not have been part of previous efforts on Delta conveyance. So one of the questions asked was if they had ever participated before in any public efforts related to a Delta tunnel proposal, including past efforts such as WaterFix and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan

The results found that for all Delta DAC respondents, 39% had previously participated, but 61% had not previously participated. Of the SDAC respondents, 66% of SDAC respondents had not participated in prior tunnel efforts. The results are mirrored in the breakdown by ethnicity, as shown in the larger graph to the left.

Another question was about which resources are important to people.  The top responses that were high priority were natural environment, clean air and drinking water, and habitat for fish, migrating birds, and wildlife.  The red bar on the figure represents all Delta region DAC participants, the yellow bar represents the Delta region SDAC participants, and the blue bar represents all participants.  While there is some difference in priority, the top three were consistently at the top.

Respondents were also asked what they liked best about the Delta region; they were given a list of options of which they could choose up to five.  The top five priorities were the same for DAC, SDAC, and all respondents, with the remaining priorities changing a bit in terms of the order.  The top five were a beautiful rural landscape, the quality of the natural environment, a slower lifestyle and small-town feel, access to outdoor activities, and the history and culture of the area. 

Ms. Buckman noted that they collected a lot of data, and the report, when published, will be posted on their website.

DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS

Councilmember Daniel Zingali asked for an example of community benefits that go beyond CEQA mitigation.

We really want to hear that feedback from the community, but I will mention something that we heard at the first workshop,” she said.  “We heard a lot of concerns at the first workshop about traffic.  As part of the EIR, we’ll be looking at traffic-related effects and mitigating for any contribution that the Delta conveyance project might have to traffic.  One of the things we heard during the first workshop is that that focus doesn’t look at some of the roadway conditions that are in other parts of the Delta. And having a broader focus on the traffic and roadway conditions in the Delta may be beneficial for a fund.  In that case, it would not be as part of the Delta conveyance project mitigation to be looking at improving roadways that we aren’t going to be using. But that could be something that could be included as part of a fund if that’s something that communities identify as beneficial.”

Councilmember Maria Mehranian noted that construction traffic was an issue.  Is there a solution that gets the trucks off the roads?

One of the things that we really been focused on through participation of the stakeholder engagement committee is trying to develop design and construction efforts that minimize effects to communities,” said Ms. Buckman.  “One of the big things that we focused on through the SEC is traffic potential. So the DCA identified all of the different truck trips and set up haul routes that would minimize those effects to the extent possible.”

Graham Bradner gave some details on the traffic analysis.  “With respect to truck trips and overall logistical related movements of materials, it started with a pretty fundamental assessment of how many modes of transportation can we use to support a site.  We also looked at opportunities to bring materials in by rail and what it would take to make facilities compatible with rail.  We also looked very heavily at barge and what facilities can be fed by barge operations.  Then, considering road, rail and barge, we then came up with a logistical solution or approach for each of the major sites.”

We had some general big picture guidelines that we worked with,” Mr. Bradner continued.  “We really wanted to minimize the amount of heavy hauling that we’re doing on roads that are on top of levees, recognizing that the levees in the Delta have a lot of issues. And in many cases, the last thing they need is a bunch of continuous high volume high weight hauling on them. So we intentionally avoided that and came up with solutions that would really minimize that type of approach. Then, we did a traffic analysis for each of the four areas that we would serve by road, wanting to understand the current level of services on those roads, the current level of traffic, and the impacts our vehicles would have on that traffic.  Where it looked like we were having an effect, we had some criteria around deciding what was a level of service impact that should be dealt with.”

We then started considering a couple of other tools in our toolbox,” said Mr. Graham.  “We created what we call Park and Rides. There are Park and Ride facilities that we can position in logical spots and have workforce traffic come in and park and then bus them to the project site rather than having all those workers come in and commute on the roads with their own vehicles. We then started looking at ways to actually get off of the public roads and have dedicated haul routes that would not use the public roads at all and provide different access points to the project sites. And then additionally, there were scenarios where we’re actually improving or expanding capacity in certain parts of the project where we think that’s the best way to feed the project and to address the traffic issues hopefully. So it’s a host of options that were considered and a combination of solutions to try and deal with that issue.”

PUBLIC COMMENT

During public comment, Deirdre Des Jardins with California Water Research expressed her concern that the conceptual engineering reports have been finished but have not been circulated for public comment.  She referenced the Delta plan policy that requires that the Department of Water Resources avoid or reduce conflicts with community uses, consider the comments of local agencies and the Delta Protection Commission; this process is still really not clear.  She thinks there is similar confusion with the community benefits fund; two Delta attorneys are actively discouraging people from participating, telling them to wait for the CEQA process.

I know when this draft CEQA document does finally come out in 2022, they’re going to be out much further along in doing the drilling and the sediment studies in the particular areas that have been chosen,” Ms. Des Jardins said.  “I really encourage the Delta Stewardship Council as the one that will ultimately do the Delta plan consistency finding to recognize this as a potential area of controversy and be proactive in trying to resolve it.”

Ms. Des Jardins also expressed her concerns for an adequate sea level rise analysis, noting that the Delta Independent Science Board review of the Cal Water Fix project found that sea level rise wasn’t adequately considered. “This is a hard adaptation to sea level rise,” she said.  “You’re looking at something that’s going to be part of the water supply for 27 million people. And the way it’s going, the Delta Independent Science Board is simply not going to have the kind of funds to do the final critical review that’s needed.  But last time, it was absolutely essential.”

Anna Swenson, a member of the DCA’s Stakeholder Engagement Committee, was skeptical of the traffic solutions proposed.  “The solution is to potentially take land by eminent domain and run haul roads through prime agricultural farmland and to bust up historical multi-generational farms.

She also expressed her concerns about the Stakeholder Engagement Committee process continuing, despite the pandemic.  Nonetheless, she has continued to participate in the meetings.  “I appreciate that the DCA has been very generous with us with the content and the information. But I want to be very, very clear: we have missed a golden opportunity to actually engage with the communities, especially the disadvantaged communities in the Delta, by moving forward with this process in the middle of a global pandemic.  There is no way to communicate with people via the internet because the Delta doesn’t have broadband. … There’s a total lack of communication between disadvantaged communities and the project, just by that mere fact alone.  They have made potential promises with the committee benefits that there will be internet when the project is completed or as it’s being completed. And my worry is, is that there won’t be any more people here to use that internet.”

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